This final "flight into the future" tells of the great hour in that unknown year yet to come when a space-ship embodying all the elements deemed by scientists and rocket-experts necessary for success leaves the Earth on a voyage to the Moon. It is fiction - but one day it well be fact
The moment Latimer came into the rest-room, Demarel knew that something was wrong.
"What is it, George?" he asked.
Latimer stood for a moment, looking down at the dark, calm little man in the armchair. Then he grinned wryly, and his large frame relaxed.
"All right, Jacques," he said, "you're the perfect cure for panic, aren't you? But it's bad enough. The Americans have got it, that's all. Heaven knows how, but they've got it."
"What exactly have they got?"
"The news about Max. And they're plugging it for all they're worth."
Demarel laughed. "And that is all, old fellow? For a moment, I thought they might have something worth having - Specifications S, perhaps. But still, as you say, it's bad enough. You have just heard this on their radio, I suppose?"
"Yes. They're putting it out all the time on the continuous news-waves. Here…"
"No - please. Don't switch on. Let's get it from the monitors. I am old-fashioned, George. I still need the written word if I am to - how do you say? - grasp it properly."
Demarel pressed a switch on the little internal radio cabinet. "Monitors? Demarel here. Teleprint copy of the American continuous news, please."
The flimsy sheets began to come out from the delivery slot in the built-in teleprinter almost as soon as he had finished speaking.
Demarel read aloud. His tone had a sardonic twang. "New alibi for non-departure of United Europe's white elephant Space-Ship One is fore-shadowed by news, exclusive to All-American Teleradio, of injury to veteran crew-member, Max Armenfeldt. After his helicopter crash yesterday, Armenfeldt, pioneer German member of the European interplanetary team, spent about two hours with specialist Petronov, fixed date for a further vetting today. Departure of Space-Ship One, twice postponed for technical re-checks, seems set for another put-off. 'Stalling at the European end stopped being news last February,' commented American atomic chief Wilber J. Sykes, interviewed by A.A.T.; 'and it's more likely to be cracked combustion chambers than cracked ribs,' he said. But while Europe waits for Petronov's report last details are going right ahead at the departure base of America's Seattle Moonraker. Iron-jawed crew boss, Martin Jarman - "
Demarel stopped reading. His white teeth showed above the little beard. "Are we really interested in the opinions of Mr. Jarman?" he asked.
Latimer snorted. "No. Confounded quack -"
"Well, yes, George, he is. But Wilber J. Sykes is not, you know. As an individual, he may be a bit unpleasant, but he is a brilliant scientist. Still, is this your bad news, George? The Americans know about Max." Demarel shrugged. "Well, it will not help them to solve their ejection-temperature problem - "
"But how did they know? We'd kept it even from station personnel here, never mind news-men. We'd even kept it from - "
Demarel gave him a quick look. "Yes, even from the Boy. I know, George, and it's disturbing - but not a tragedy. Our good friend Bailey must check his security measures, that's all. As to the confident statement of our American colleagues, that there will be more - what was the barbaric term? - more stalling, they will be disappointed. We take off on the 9th, with or without Max."
"With the Boy?" Latimer's voice was flat.
"Of course. That was agreed long ago. Don't be sentimental, George."
"He's so very young."
"And therefore better able to stand acceleration effects than either you or me. Do you know what you are really saying, George? One of two things. Either that youth means incompetence, and that's an insult to the Boy, or that it is sad for a man to die young, and that is defeatism."
"I have every confidence in the Boy."
"Good. And in our calculations?"
Latimer did not answer. Demarel glanced keenly at the long lined face with its composed mouth and steady eyes. He leaned forward.
"George!" Latimer turned to look at him. "George! You do not believe that we shall come back, do you?"
"No. But you do."
"Naturally. I believe in my slide-rule. I have evidence. But what have you?"
Latimer was smiling. "Dear old Jacques. You're a scientist. I'm only an adventurer with a veneer of science. In any case, what I told you was not quite true. I do not believe absolutely that we shan't come back. I do believe that certain variables - we've discussed them before; instrumental deviation is one of them - leave a bigger margin of error than you estimate. But it makes no difference. Twenty years ago - it sounds like a long time - I knew that when I took off to bomb Hamburg there was one chance in three that I should not come back. If I had let it worry me, there would have been more than one chance in three." Latimer laughed. "Eight hundred miles to Hamburg, 240,000 for this trip of ours. But no flak at the other end."
Demarel jerked his lithe body from the long armchair. "Come for a walk, George," he said; "you need it."
The two men strolled out through the sliding door in the sun-glass wall of the rest-room. The summer evening was ending in a welter of cloud-streaked yellow in the western sky.
They walked away from the low dwelling-block towards the old aerodrome. Latimer could remember when it was still in use, in the early '50s, before the helicopter had ousted the fixed-wing aircraft for everything but long-range traffic. But it was also before Stoneley had become Experimental Station39. Even then, they had started the earlier rocket experiments. The first launching sites stood, derelict, by the television building.
Experimental Station 39 had grown from north to south. Past the old aerodrome the rocket sites. Past them again, the bases from which the artificial satellites had taken off. Latimer remembered the triumph of that moment when the first signals had come back from their automatic transmitters to tell Earth that she had new planets, things of her own creation, circling as steadily as the old; to tell the men of Experimental Station 39, too, that they had established new outposts in space.
Past the satellite sites, across the quarter of a mile of open space, was the vast dark bulk which had become, for the last five years, the heart of Experimental Station 39 - the launching shaft where Space-Ship One was cradled, more than half sheathed, her sharp snout pointing to the heavens.
Space-Ship One - the product of a generation of effort by the best scientific minds of Europe. A generation of effort - and how many man-hours of labour? Latimer could grasp that less easily than the huge distances in which he had dealt for so long. And now - he looked at the luminous dial of his watch - now, in just over two days, three men would have all that in their hands. And he would be one of them.
Three men - ahead of them, space; behind them a vast mass of calculation, much of it verified experimentally, much of it confirmed brilliantly by the placing of the satellites. Some of it . . . but there had always been that.
He frowned thoughtfully. For five years, ever since their selection by the European Federation, Latimer had lived and worked with Demarel and Armenfeldt. For three year the Boy had been with them. Until twenty-four ago, Latimer had not once had a doubt. But now . . .
Dremarel's hand was on his arm.
"We shall very soon know about Max, my friend. It is nearly conference-time, and our good M'sieur Bailey does not like to be kept waiting. We must go back."
Silently, the two men retraced their steps to the floodlit space round the main buildings. When they were not more than a hundred yards away, something swished overhead like a giant moth making of the light.
They watched while the helicopter settled gently in the parking place, its rotors two glinting discs.
"That's probably the Boy coming back," said Latimer. "He always cuts things fine - even Bailey's conferences."
They entered Bailey's big airy office without knocking. This was the routine of years. The others were already waiting for them.
Nobody in the twentieth century - nobody in all history - had been so well known to so many of the world's people as this little group of men who sat round the low plastic table. The most elaborate news-distributing machine ever created had recorded their words audibly and in print, had broadcast them and televised them.
Not that Experimental Station 39 had attracted so much attention in its earlier days. Then, apart from articles in the scientific journals, its chief claim to fame had been that amount of money spent on it. But when the first robot rocket had actually sent back its visual signal from the moon, the news-services had woken up to it with a vengeance.
Another giant wave of publicity followed when the first artificial satellite settled in its orbit. Since that time there has been an increasing flood of information - much of it inaccurate - upon the progress of Space-Ship One, the biggest and most dramatic story since news became a commodity.
Now, every schoolboy could have told something of these seven men, and especially of the three who had been chosen to man Space-Ship One - Demarel, brilliant French physicist; Latimer, Englishman, bomber pilot in the last of the world wars; Armenfeldt, German rocket expert. Less picturesque figures were the two men at the head of the table - slight, silver-haired James Bailey, director of research, and his assistant, the Swiss scientist, Mathie.
Bailey's opening remarks were formal, but there was drama in the air.
"Our first business, gentlemen, is to hear the report of Dr. Petronov."
Petronov was one of Russia's greatest surgeons. He looked round the table with little friendly eyes, set above high cheek-bones. Each face that he saw was watching him except one. Max Armenfeldt sat with his head bowed, showng clearly the slight flecks of grey in his close-cropped hair.
"As you all know," said Petronov, "what I found after the helicopter accident yesterday led me to make a further examination of our friend Armenfeldt." Bailey, too, was now looking at his blotting pad. Petronov's quiet precise voice continued. "This second examination left no doubt. Besides the obvious bruising and some muscular strain, he is suffering from the effects of slight concussion. It is nothing serious by any ordinary standards; but" - Petronov paused - " in my judgment, he is not fit to be a member of the Space-Ship crew."
In the silence which followed, Armenfeldt looked up for the first time, and Latimer found himself unable to meet the misery in the German's eyes. Suddenly he realised Armenfeldt's age.
Bailey leaned back.
"Are there any questions on Dr. Petronov's report?" he asked. "Very well. This is something that we knew from the beginning might happen. We know each other too well, all of us, for me to have to tell Mr. Armenfeldt of our sympathy." He spoke into the internal radio. "Mr. Weston, please."
The tension in the room relaxed when Peter Weston came in. There was a cheerful vitality which would not be denied about this fresh, broad-shouldered young man with blue eyes and a shock of untidy hair. It was Latimer who had first christened him "The Boy", Demarel who had first realised his ability.
"Hello, everybody," he said. He fitted his long legs under the table, and looked dutifully at Bailey. He was quite incapable of being awed, even by "the conference."
"Mr. Weston," said Bailey, quietly, "we have not called you for consultation today." Something in his voice made the Boy's face suddenly serious. "Mr. Armenfeldt has been found physically unfit for crew duty. You, as the reserve member, will take his place. It is unfortunate, I know, that this should have happened so shortly before zero hour, but you have trained with the team, and we have every confidence in you. Mr. Latimer will replace Mr. Armenfeldt in No.2 position. You will take over No.3." Bailey coughed, dryly. "I congratulate you."
The Boy laughed. "That's grand - " He stopped suddenly. "Max, old man, I'm sorry. I'm a ham-fisted fool."
Armenfeldt's lined face became warm for a moment. "You are a very good boy," he said.
The Boy turned again to Bailey. "Thanks," he said. "I'll be all right."
"Good," said Bailey. "So it is agreed. Shall we proceed, gentlemen? Tomorrow's timetable . . . "
It was little more than half an hour later when the conference broke up. There were only details to consider. The routine of those days before the take-off had been planned, not weeks, but months before.
As Latimer pushed his chair back, he found Demarel's light touch on his arm. "Half an hour with Max," said Demarel, quietly. Latimer nodded.
Armenfeldt was on his way to the door when they caught up with him.
"You're not going to bed yet, Max?" asked Demarel. "Even Petronov wouldn't expect it. Whom are we visiting tonight, George?"
"Matter of fact, it's Max's turn for host," said Latimer.
The little flats in the dwelling block were as alike as so many peas, but this game of social calls had been going on for years.
"I had forgotten. My apologies," said Armenfeldt. "Of course, we go - chez moi, Jacques; that it, we dump ourselves in my 'ole, George."
The old joke, thought Latimer, as the lift took them up; but the strain in Armenfeldt's face was pathetic.
Armenfeldt's room was a small museum. The walls were plastered with photographs - most unframed, some framed - of aircraft, land vehicles, boats, rockets in flight and on launching ramps. Scattered about, too, were a few instruments and the oddest objects - some recognisable as complete projectiles, some apparently empty shell-cases, some mere scraps of metal of plastic. They littered the tops of bookcases, and one or two hung from the walls.
In this strange place, the three men had spent many hours talking, smoking as much as the martinet Petronov would allow, relaxed and happy. Often the Boy had joined them. But tonight Latimer could not relax. This was a mockery of those old days.
Demarel alone was himself - keen, witty, tactful, ironical. Armenfeldt tried desperately to meet hi, but the effort was obvious. Of course, Max was heartbroken. The take-off to the Moon, for him, was the culmination of those decades of work whose relics were scattered about the room. Now he could not go. After all, he was not to be one of the three who, for a few tense hours in the control room of Space-Ship One, would make history - or pass out of it.
Latimer was glad when the time came to go. Early hours were a habit long established.
They paused outside the door of Demarel's apartment. Demarel looked at Latimer, shook his head.
"It is not to be taken too seriously, my friend," he said.
"It's tragic," said Latimer.
"It is also absurd. Max is ready to face a quarter of a million miles of space - and he falls fifty feet in a helicopter. Am I being flippant, George?"
Latimer grinned. "Yes - bless you for it. By the way, what happened to Max's machine?"
"I don't know, exactly. Neither does he. He'd just taken off when the motor failed. Apparently there was a partial seizure of the rotor-head as well. You've seen the machine since, perhaps? No? At any rate, it came down fast enough to fracture the undercarriage and buckle the fuselage. Max was flub against the port side of the cabin and it was simply the worst possible luck that his head struck one of the struts. I don't think that Petronov would have grounded him for the damage to his shoulder alone." Demarel shrugged. "These things happen."
"In spite of calculations, Jacques?"
"Of course. Don't make debating points, George. You are a scientist, not a politician. In any case, the possibility of accident itself can be calculated. The old insurance companies did it every day."
"On the basis of experience, Jacques. There's no precedent for our trip. We're going to the Moon, you know."
Demarel glanced quickly into Latimer's face, then laughed. "You're fencing, George. You are - how do you say it? - pulling my leg. It is too late for that game. We need sleep: tomorrow is our last complete day before take-off. Good night!"
Latimer strolled slowly to his rooms. That had been decent of Jacques - very decent. He must have known that it was not all leg-pulling.
So this was his last day on earth, thought Latimer, as he felt the thin warmth of the morning sun through the wall of his solarium bedroom. He chuckled to himself. Better not put it like that to Demarel, or he would be told to add "for five days."
Then, as he swung his long legs out of bed the remembered the events of the previous day.
"Put it all behind you!" said Latimer to himself.
Latimer could do that. His practice had started twenty years before. When you took off for Germany you didn't think about the flak at the other end . . . .
He breakfasted with Demarel and the Boy. Armenfeldt was not there. The Boy was a volcano of high spirits.
"Lovely moon last night, George." he erupted through a mouthful of toast. "I looked at it and thought, 'You've had enough sonatas, my girl. Hold your had on; we're coming'!"
Latimer felt better. The Boy had that effect.
They were nearly ready to leave the dining-room when Demarel took the latest news-sheets from the teleprinter.
"Hallo!" he said. "Flash - only a few minutes old. The Americans are ready at last. They take off at 19:00 hours on Monday. Wilbur J. Sykes said it, so it must be true."
The Boy laughed. "All right, Jacques. They'll be forty-eight hours late, and that's all there is to it. At least forty-eight hours, because if old Bill Sykes' outlet vents will stand the same gas temperatures as Bailey's I'm a Dutchman."
"That's the kind of statement to give to the Press," said Latimer. "But Bailey wouldn't let you. Come on, blokes - time for work."
For the last seven months, ever since Space-Ship One had been completed in all its essential detail, "work" at Experimental Station 39 had meant roughly the same routine. Morning - crew drill in the control-room of the ship itself, or in the robot mock-up where flight conditions were artificially reproduced on the instruments and, as far as possible, on the crew. Afternoon - theoretical conferences (Bailey had banned the word "classes") and supervision of the detail work which remained to be done on Space-Ship One.
Today there was to be a final check of the flight drill in the control-room. They entered through a tunnel in the sloping side of the launching shaft's concrete base, leading directly to the entrance hatch in the smooth flank of the great rocket.
Inside, they paused in the tiny metal chamber of the airlock while Demarel threw the switch which closed the electrically operated outer door. Through the inner door was the control-room - a circular compartment twenty feet in diameter.
The three men knew every inch of this clean, instrument-packed box, with its three reclining chairs and control-panels. Bailey and Armenfeldt were waiting for them there. Under their watchful eyes, they put on the metallised suits which, with a magnetic field, would replace gravity for them once they were in space. Demarel took his place by the master control-panel, Latimer in the navigator's chair, the Boy at the position flanked by the recording instruments.
Easily, they passed through the take-off drill, the inter-gravity routine, testing the oxygen supply, the movements between essential positions, Latimer's access to the navigator's observation chamber in the nose portion above.
Then came the drill of landing - first, reversal of the ship by the auxiliary jets in the flanks, then the controlled descent, the lowering of the retractable landing legs, the use of the auxiliary jets for lateral movement before touch-down, and, finally, exchange of the metallic suits for oxygen suits and exit through the air-lock.
This was the last time, thought Latimer. But was this the only reason for his uneasiness? No! Each time he caught the eye of Armenfeldt he knew that it was not. He found himself becoming impatient. He wanted this day to end.
The feeling grew in the afternoon. According to Petronov, he should have been resting; instead he visited Demarel and talked. It was aimless talk, and he knew it. His first reaction when Armenfeldt appeared was merely relief from boredom. He was pleased, too, that Max should seek them out - he had been too much alone since the accident. But one look at Armenfeldt's face brought his mind fully awake.
Demarel had sensed it, too, "Sit down, Max," he said. "What is it?"
Armenfeldt spoke deliberately, quietly.
"I have had a report on the accident to my helicopter," he said. "I was not interested - you understand why - but young Endriksen insisted that it was important. He is a good boy. This is what he showed me."
On the palm of Armenfeldt's hand, with its long draughtsman's fingers, lay the two parts of a bolt, discoloured and slightly twisted.
"You recognise it, perhaps? One of the volute bolts from the atomic motor. It has sheared. Inter-crystalline failure at high temperature." Sombrely, Armenfeldt looked at the two men opposite. The room was very quiet. "That bolt had an estimated safety factor of two. And the material is 'S'."
Latimer shifted in his chair. "You're sure . . . ?" he began, and broke off as he realised the futility of the question.
"Of course," said Armenfeldt, as though he had completed it.
"Have you told Bailey?" asked Demarel.
Demarel nodded. Close as Bailey had been to them, there was an inner camaraderie among the crew.
"And the Boy?" said Latimer.
Armenfeldt hesitated. "No."
"The Boy has as much right to know as we have, Max," said Demarel.
Latimer nodded, reached towards the internal radio.
"Wait, George!" Armenfeldt's voice was imperative. "First, there is a matter for us to settle. Take your hand away from the radio . . . So." For a second or two, Armenfeldt toyed with the broken bolt. He looked up suddenly.
"You still intend to take off tomorrow?" he asked.
"Yes," said Demarel.
"Then you will take me with you, not the Boy. No, Jacques - I am not being sentimental. It is a simple calculation. The Boy still had a lifetime to give to science, but I - "
Demarel shook his head. "It won't do, Max. You are talking nonsense - nice, humane nonsense. You want me to prove it? Right. You are saying that there is a greater risk of failure because you have found a fault in a component of 'S' alloy. If we really believed that, what could we do? We could ground Space-Ship One while we instructed the metallurgical laboratories to re-examine 'S'. And then? They could not apply a single test to 'S' which they have not applied already - and you know it, my friend. 'S' has been proved under every condition of temperature and pressure and cosmic-ray exposure that we can reproduce."
Demarel looked straight into Armenfeldt's face.
"If you had been going with us, would you have shown us that bolt?"
Armenfeldt's light blue eyes were unhappy, his lips tight.
"Would you, Max?"
"Good." Demarel pressed the radio-switch. "Hello! Peter? Jacques here. Are you coming to see us? Yes? We shall be honoured."
Within two minutes the Boy was stretching himself luxuriously in Demarel's best chair.
"What's in the wind?" he asked. He looked at Demarel and laughed. "Come off it, Jacques. I know you three have been cooking something. You look about as innocent as Guy Fawkes with a match in his hand. And Max is giving a very fair imitation of an undertaker's mute. Come clean - as Wilbur J. Sykes would put it."
Unconsciously, Latimer's eyes strayed to the table. In a flash, the Boy's had followed them. Lazily, he stretched out a long arm and grabbed the fragments of bolt.
"Hello-o-o!" he said, and whistled between his teeth. "So this is what jiggered up your rotor-head, Max?"
"Good guess," said Latimer.
"It wasn't a guess," said Demarel.
"Quite right, Jacques," said the Boy. "You don't miss many points, do you? No - Endriksen was telling me all about it, a couple of hours ago."
"All about it?" asked Armenfeldt.
"Yes. Saw the X-ray prints, too. Classic spot of inter-crystalline what-not."
There was a flat silence. The Boy looked up sharply. "Why? What about it?"
Demarel shrugged. "Simply, Peter, that if Endriksen has told you all about it, we need not."
The Boy sat bold upright. "So that was it," he said. "Holy smoke! You're not going to let this - ?"
"No, we're not," said Latimer. "We only thought that you should know."
"And we would like your opinion," added Demarel.
The Boy laughed. "Bless your dear old hearts," he said. "You're both so consistent. George - strictly honourable. Jacques - strictly polite. And Max - ?"
For the first time, Armenfeldt smiled. "Max - strictly scientific," he said.
"All right. I'll give you my opinion on Max's basis. Some hundreds of specimens of 'S' have been proof-tested to destruction. One bolt made of 'S' has sheared. You don't alter the shape of a graph because one point is off the curve. Right?"
There was a long silence.
"Right," said Armenfeldt, at last, and the one word seemed enough for all.
"No more shop," said Latimer. He looked at the clock. "I'm going to get some sleep."
"Me, too," said the Boy.
Demarel rose to show his guests out.
Armenfeldt had reached the door of his own room when somebody called, "Hey Max!"
He turned. The Boy was at his elbow.
"Here - take this. You're only to do anything with it if - we don't come back."
Reflectively, Armenfeldt looked at the envelope in his hand.
"You will permit a question?" he said.
"When did you write this?"
"An hour ago - after I'd spoken to Endriksen."
"That was - not so scientific, Peter."
"You showed them the bolt. That was not so scientific, either. 'Night, Max."
Armenfeldt walked across his dark room to the glazed outer wall, and looked out.
There were two focal points of light in the darkness outside. Above, low in the sky, hung the great June moon, a mild yellow, craters etched clearly on its surface, incredibly near. Below his eye-level and apparently more distant, because he was conscious of the black open space between, the launching-site of Space-Ship One showed in the centre of a patch of blue-white light. There, he knew, the technicians were making their last unhurried in sections under the eyes of the powerful sodium arcs.
Tomorrow, that moon would still be there - a little larger. Space-Ship One would not.
Armenfeldt glanced at his watch. Tomorrow, in three hours' time, Space-Ship One would have bridged the quarter-million miles between those two points. He pictured it, as he had pictured it a thousand times - that moment when the big chronometers would tell the men in the control-cabin that they were about to enter the moon's field of gravity; when the accelerometers would confirm it. And then - how well he could see it - that huge metal projectile veering in space as the auxiliary jets reversed it (it would be Demarel, not he, who would watch the course-indicator) . . . 120 degrees . . . 160 . . . 170 . . . 180 . . . and then the automatic control would hold her at that; main motors still on, controlling the rate of descent . . . undercarriage lowering . . . Space-Ship One creeping down, a gigantic shell with sprawling tripod leg, and below, growing every second in the viewing-screen of the control-cabin, the arid, shadowed landscape of the Moon.
"Nightmare landscape" was the stock phrase of the journalists. But that was not Armenfeldt's nightmare, not the nightmare which had haunted him, paradoxically, ever since he had known that he would not have to face it. Again, his mind raced through the possibilities of failure. Some he found it easy to discount. Collision with a meteorite, or some unpredicted effect of cosmic-ray exposure; power-failure, a possibility less remote, its effects only too clear. Of course, it might be partial. They had an emergency drill for returning to earth; but that, too, depending on having at least enough thrust to arrest the ship's descent. Otherwise, power failure might mean . . . Armenfeldt's thoughts would not stop now . . . might mean almost anything. Suspension in the earth's gravitational field, another artificial satellite, a tomb circling in space. Or an uncontrolled fall at either end of the journey, with Space-Ship One and its crew a few tons of crushed matter. Or of course, inability to take off for the return and a death from oxygen starvation on the lifeless surface of the Moon.
Sharply, Armenfeldt checked himself. He was being illogical as well as morbid. With the atomic-energised motors, they had a far bigger power-reserve than they had ever believed possible in the days when he and Bailey had worked on the plans of the original Space-Ship One - a multi-step ship, powered by liquid fuel, which had never gone beyond the drawing-board.
He was behaving like a fool - and he needed sleep.
But sleep did not come easily. More than once, Armenfelt woke from a half-remembered dream - the Boy's face had been part of it, pale and wet with sweat (of course, the oxygen was going), and a voice which said "Estimated . . . estimated proof stress . . . " and the two halves of a broken bolt, and somebody laughing.
I I I
"The place looks like Hampstead Heath on a bank holiday," said the Boy.
From the control-tower, some quarter of a mile from the launching-site, they could see the black fringe of crowds at the boundary of the old aerodrome. Inside the station itself, too, was a sight which had not been seen for five years. The news-services, banned from Experimental Station 39 since Space-Ship One had begun to take shape, were having a field-day. Spread in a wide semi-circle were brightly coloured television vans, with their telescopic super-structures extended. Overhead hovered three or four helicopters.
Bailey glanced at the clock, spoke into the radio. "Airfield control? Tell those news-service machines that their time's up and that they must go back to the park. You've checked that all ground personnel are clear of the launching area? Good! Yes, now . . ."
He turned to the others. "We should go now," he said.
Two cars were waiting to take them to the launching-site. Demarel, as he took his seat, was chuckling quietly. "I'm sorry, George," he told Latimer. "I suppose that I should to be amused - but you noticed poor Bailey? He might be escorting us to the scaffold. The sentiment of you Englishmen . . . "
Latimer grunted. Demarel had interrupted the onset of a familiar mood - a mood which sprang from old memories of evenings on muddy airfields, with the cars taking bomber crews out to dispersal point. And the Boy's face was of a piece with that picture. There had been so many boys like that . . .
But even Demarel was silent as they filed through the corridor in the base of the shaft and into the entrance hatch of Space-Ship One. There were on last-minute instructions to give. Every action, every movement, had been rehearsed so often.
"There's on thing," said Bailey. "I've kept it to the last. There was a news-flash an hour ago: 'America's Seattle Moonraker's departure indefinitely postponed. Solution to ejection-temperature problem not satisfactory'." A ghost of a smile lit up Bailey's face. "You've got a clear field," he said.
"Poor Wilber J.," said the Boy, and chuckled.
They put on the metalled suits, Bailey and Armenfeldt watching. Demarel threw the master-switch, ran methodically through the ground-checking of the instruments. So far, this was the routine of yesterday. Now came the break. Demarel turned from the master control-panel, nodded. "That's it," he said.
Bailey came forward, hand out-stretched. "A good journey," he said.
Armenfeldt followed him. He smiled as he shook their hands.
"Heaven knows what that's costing you," thought Latimer.
But only the Boy spoke to him. "You'll come with us on the next trip, Max," he said, and Armenfeldt nodded.
Demarel followed them out through the air-lock. Latimer heard the click of a switch and the brief hum of the motor as the outer door closed smoothly. Demarel returned, shut the inner hatch, and glanced at the chronometers.
"Nine minutes to go," he said. "That gives Bailey and Max plenty of time to get back to the control-tower. Are we - all set, I think you would say, George?"
"I'm O.K. And you, Peter?"
"Fine, thanks." The Boy chuckled. "Did you notice the nearest of those television vans which we passed - the one with a yellow star on it? That was All-America Teleradio's outfit. This'll knock Wilbur J. Sykes for six."
"Right," said Demarel. "Let's get down."
The three men stretched themselves in the long, padded reclining chairs. Latimer, from sheer habit, adjusted slightly the inclination of his back.
The chronometers stood at four minutes to the hour.
Latimer turned his head so that he could see the red sequence switch on the panel by the arm of Demarel's chair. Once that switch was thrown, the automatic sequence-gear would take care of everything, with an accuracy greater than that of any human. Synchronised with the chronometers, it would start the jets at the moment pre-selected for take-off, then control the rate of discharge so that acceleration would follow exactly the estimated figures. And when that robot's task had finished, Space-Ship One would be outside Earth's atmosphere, outside its gravitational field - travelling in space at more than 200,000 miles an hour.
Demarel's forefinger pressed the switch.
Two minutes to go.
Latimer leaned back, tried to wait, relaxed, for the dead grip of acceleration to push his body down into the chair. He felt utterly helpless. This was worse than baling-out - then, at least, you could pull on the shroud lines. But now there was nothing he could do . . . nothing . . . nothing.
The chronometers showed thirty seconds. Then, from the tail of his eye, Latimer saw a fist appear over the arm of the chair to his right - a fist with the thumb up. Good for the Boy! Latimer signalled back.
Then a sigh.
That was all. Then the space-ship was gone.
Armenfeldt turned away. There were tears in his eyes. A dead weight seemed to be pulling at his heart. The dead weight was in his pocket - two halves of a broken bolt.